Liu Xia: A woman whose existence is an embarrassment to China

August 14, 2017 16:48
Liu Xia (center) has not been seen in public since her husband died of liver cancer on July 13 while in state custody. Photo: Yahoo

In the month since the death of Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, world attention has shifted to focus on the fate of his widow, Liu Xia, who had been kept under illegal house arrest ever since her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010 while serving an 11-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power”.

Liu Xia, a poet and artist, has not been seen in public since her husband died of liver cancer on July 13. The authorities quickly had him cremated and his ashes disposed of at sea, presumably so that there would not be a grave to which his supporters could go to pay their respects.

World leaders have called on China to allow his widow to go abroad. This, indeed, was his dying wish and it appears to be hers as well.

Even while he lay at death’s door, Liu Xiaobo asked to go overseas in the company of his wife and her brother, Liu Hui, in the hope that she could find refuge abroad after he was gone. But this was not to be. Permission to travel abroad was withheld. The authorities insisted that everything possible was being done for him, except, of course, the one thing that he truly wanted – to die a free man in the company of his wife.

The Chinese government’s treatment of Liu Xia may well be taken up by the United Nations, again. Jared Genser, founder of Freedom Now, an independent non-governmental organization that works to free prisoners of conscience worldwide and her pro bono lawyer in the United States, has filed a formal complaint to the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, asking for urgent intervention. “The world must act quickly to secure her release,” he said.

The Working Group is familiar with her case. In 2011, the year after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and she was subjected to house arrest without due legal process, the working group, which is part of the UN Human Rights Council, looked into her situation and sought the cooperation of the Chinese government in its investigation.

The Chinese government, in its response, stated that “no legal enforcement measure has been taken against Liu Xia.” In addition, it added that “China is a country of rule of law where the legal rights of the citizen are protected by the law.”

The submission of the Chinese government may not have helped its position. In fact, since “no legal enforcement measure” was taken against her, it follows that her house arrest was, in fact, illegal and her rights as a citizen were not protected.

The working group arrived at the following opinion:

“The deprivation of liberty of Liu Xia, being in contravention to articles 9, 10 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is arbitrary…

“The Working Group requests the Government of China to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation, which include the immediate end of the house arrest, and adequate reparation to Liu Xia.”

This decision was announced on February 27, 2012. Now, the Working Group may well feel justified in reopening her case. While the outside world at least knew where Liu Xia was when she was under illegal house arrest, now she has disappeared and her whereabouts – indeed, even whether she is still alive – cannot be known for sure.

Of course, there is no mechanism for the enforcement of international law and China has so far successfully defied the Working Group’s opinion of 2012. However, it is paying a price in terms of how it is viewed by the rest of the world.

Why is China treating Liu Xia this way? Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law and human rights at New York University, believes Beijing is seeking to prevent her from becoming a symbol of political resistance and freedom of expression.

“One-party dictatorships can’t allow free speech,” he said. “That is why they tried to keep her quiet. They may decide just to keep her under wraps indefinitely until she, too, succumbs to either mental illness or physical illness.”

It is highly distressing to think that in today’s China, when the country is moving towards fulfillment of the China Dream, that a woman who has been charged with no crime can be made to disappear because the state considers her existence to be an embarrassment.

China must release Liu Xia. Let her say what she wants. Surely, China won’t collapse because of the words of a 56-year-old widow.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.